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MikeCheck: Morant or Barrett? Or will debate even develop in Grizz draft options for No. 2 pick?

by Michael Wallace | Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – With the second overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, the Memphis Grizzlies select ... ?

The early and solid frontrunner is Murray State explosive point guard Ja Morant. Most believe he’ll be the one slipping on a Grizzlies cap, sliding across the stage on June 20 and shaking Commissioner Adam Silver’s hand when the No. 2 pick is announced at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

But what about Duke prolific swingman RJ Barrett? Didn’t he enter this past season as the consensus top NBA draft prospect and then only cemented his stock by setting the ACC freshman scoring record?

Is the potential Morant-Barrett decision even a legit draft debate?

Can what seems to be a no-brainer now evolve into a mind-bender closing in on draft night?

Duke teammates RJ Barrett and Duke Williamson react to a play

Teammates Zion Williamson #1 and RJ Barrett #5 of the Duke Blue Devils react against the Syracuse Orange during their game in the quarterfinal round of the 2019 Men's ACC Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 14, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo by Streeter Lecka via Getty Images.

While Morant carries the early and heavy momentum a week after the Draft Lottery was set, a growing number of NBA executives, league scouts and national basketball analysts caution against easily dismissing Barrett as a potential fit and intriguing option for the Grizzlies.

Barring a catastrophic reversal of plans, Duke forward Zion Williamson is a lock to be taken first by the New Orleans Pelicans. Count on that like Nawlins' residents bank on beignets for breakfast.

What’s also clear is that in the coming weeks, the Grizzlies will complete a daunting due diligence process to arm themselves with every facet of information and analyses necessary for a draft decision that could define the next decade.

While a majority of executives among the 14 lottery teams in Chicago last week rank Morant ahead of Barrett, some told Grind City Media that the talent and potential impact gap between the two is hardly as wide as initially perceived. The coming weeks of workouts could widen or eliminate any gap at all. National media analysts and longtime talent evaluators tend to agree with that notion.

“RJ versus Ja is certainly a conversation,” Los Angeles-based ESPN Draft Analyst Mike Schmitz said. “Personally, I think Ja has a little bit more upside in terms of his explosiveness, combined with his feel for the game. RJ is going to be a really, really good player. He’s going to be an All-Star caliber player.”

Schmitz also comprehends the other side of the spectrum.

“Not every team sees it the same,” Schmitz continued. “Some think that RJ, who came into the season at No. 1 on our board, has a chance to be better than Ja for sure because of his size and ability to score at all three levels, and make others better when he wants to. So, I think it’s huge to have that top-three pick, and it’s not a clear-cut (call), like, ‘Ja Morant is for sure going to be a better NBA player than RJ Barrett,’ – even though that’s kind of how I see it right now.”

Personally, I think Ja has a little bit more upside in terms of his explosiveness, combined with his feel for the game. RJ is going to be a really, really good player. He’s going to be an All-Star caliber player.
Mike Schmitz

The Grizzlies’ front-office contingent met with Williamson, Morant and Barrett last week in the Chicago at the NBA Draft Lottery and Combine. While NBA insiders and national reports have strongly linked the Grizzlies to Morant as their target, top Memphis executives are committed to taking a methodical approach to draft evaluations and will consider multiple options as they proceed with the No. 2 pick.

Next month’s draft, coupled with the rapid development of returning All-Rookie First Team forward Jaren Jackson Jr., gives the Grizzlies some foundational pieces on which to build.

“Having Jaren plus whatever we do with the No. 2 pick is a pretty exciting position to be in,” Zach Kleiman, the Grizzlies’ executive vice president of basketball operations, told Grind City Media last week. “This is a great outcome for us. We look forward to where this process takes us.”

Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies warms up before the game

Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies warms up before the game against the San Antonio Spurs on July 5, 2018 at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo by Joe Murphy via Getty Images.

If that process steers the Grizzlies toward the draft’s most prolific point guard, then Morant brings a performance resume with a distinction as the only player in NCAA history to average at least 20 points and 10 assists in a college basketball season. A potential knock on the 6-foot-3 sophomore was that he played in the relatively small Ohio Valley Conference and didn’t face elite college competition nightly as did some of the draft’s other high lottery prospects.

But when Murray State faced some of the NCAA’s higher-profile programs, Morant elevated his performance even beyond his normal video-game like numbers and viral highlights. In four games this past season against Alabama, Auburn, Marquette and Florida State – the last two in the NCAA Tournament – Morant averaged 27 points, 8.0 assists and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 49.7 percent from the field, including 44.4 percent on threes. He also averaged six turnovers.

“We always want leaders on the floor, guys who make other guys better and (Morant) did that,” said Steve Kyler, who runs an international scouting and analysis website Basketball Insiders. “If you look at his supporting cast at Murray State, these are not guys we talked about as high-level, pro-level prospects – and he made them all look great. And when you need a bucket, he could do that, too.”

Count Kyler in the camp that believes the Grizzlies should keep it simple, draft Morant and allow him the opportunity to develop alongside Jackson through some initial growing pains. Patience is required along such a path, and the Grizzlies would have a solid four-to-five-year window to build around that tandem while holding internal advantages with their rookie-scale contracts and potential extensions.

If you look at his supporting cast at Murray State, these are not guys we talked about as high-level, pro-level prospects – and he made them all look great. And when you need a bucket, he could do that to.
Steve Kyler

On the other hand, there’s a strong case to be made that Barrett is ready to plug and play at a position of immediate need within Memphis’ current makeup. Point guard Mike Conley, 31, is coming off his most productive season and has two years remaining on his contract. And Jonas Valanciunas, 27, holds an option to return next season after posting the most prolific scoring and rebounding stretch of his career once he arrived in Memphis following the February trade.

There’s plenty of potential in a Conley-Barrett backcourt with Kyle Anderson, Jackson and Valanciunas rounding out the likely starting five. In theory, it gives the Grizzlies a unit that could quickly return to the playoff mix after two straight finishes outside the postseason. With that core, Memphis would almost certainly convey next year’s top-six protected lottery pick to Boston to clear any remaining trade debts.

And Barrett stands out on his own merits, having done so since the time he dropped 33 points for Duke against Kentucky in his college debut. The 6-foot-7 elite scorer had six 30-point games last season and averaged 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting 45.4 percent from the field. The Canada native was a spotty three-point shooter at just 30.8 percent, but had some streaky moments with four games in which he’s drilled at least four from beyond the arc.

Barrett was considered the top draft prospect heading into his freshman season, but Williamson then exploded from the pack. Barrett proved he could be a team player and still establish himself as a dominant force alongside Williamson. And it was Barrett who kept Duke afloat once Williamson missed time late in the regular season with a knee injury.

“That’s what most of these guys in the NBA were thinking, that this was going to be the RJ Barrett draft,” said longtime college basketball analyst Jeff Goodman of WatchStadium.com. “But Zion was just so good right out of the gate for Duke and showed some things people really haven’t seen or have overlooked before, which were his skill level, his fire, his intensity and his ability to play hard all of the time.”

Ja Morant #12 of the Murray State Racers celebrates scoring at the end of the first half

Ja Morant #12 of the Murray State Racers celebrates scoring at the end of the first half during the first round game of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament against the Marquette Golden Eagles at XL Center on March 21, 2019 in Hartford, Connecticut. Photo by Maddie Meyer via Getty Images.

Goodman has Morant rated ahead of Barrett and believes Morant can be a franchise-altering player who might have a better NBA impact than even Williamson. But from the Grizzlies’ vantage point, he also sees mitigating factors – looming decisions on the status of veterans on the roster – that could be key factors in the team’s ultimate direction at the draft.

The Grizzlies are in a unique position to weigh all angles and options; particularly should Barrett make a push in draft workouts for stronger consideration as the No. 2 pick. Memphis executives have watched the top prospects in person during the season and are working on visits to either bring some to Memphis or to monitor neutral-site draft workouts.

Glen Grunwald, who was promoted by the Grizzlies to a senior advisory role in the front office last month, had been an executive with the New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors. Last season, Grunwald was president and chief executive officer of Canada Basketball, which gives him keen insight on Barrett’s development in recent years as the next star prospect to come through the national program’s pipeline.

Brendan Suhr, who worked as a scout with the Knicks under Grunwald, told the New York Post that Barrett has can’t-miss upside entering the league.

“RJ has the potential to be as good a scoring guard as we’ve had come into the league in the last 10 years,” Suhr told the Post. “He’s very versatile, with a mentality to score. He’s dominated every level, dominated at the FIBA level. And he’s got great size. He’s a winner.”

With the Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers positioned to draft third and fourth next month, Barrett may prefer to land in one of the NBA’s larger markets. He hasn’t spoken publicly with the media since the May 14 Lottery order was set. Meanwhile, Morant, who played at mid-major Murray State and is from a small South Carolina town, has said he has no market preference entering the draft.

“Whatever team that drafts me – small market, big market, it doesn’t matter,” Morant said. “It would be the same (scenario). I’m going to be happy where I’m at.”

Less than a month out from the draft, the Grizzlies feel the same way about their options at No. 2.

There’s certainly no debate about that.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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